After a Decade, Will Gustavo Dudamel Stay at the L.A. Phil or Leave on a High Note?

As the boundary-busting conductor celebrates his 10th year at the L.A. Philharmonic, some wonder whether the symphony can hold on to its charismatic star
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The first time Gustavo Dudamel came to Los Angeles, his reputation soaring after winning a prestigious conducting contest in Germany, the 24-year-old walked into the Hollywood Bowl’s rooftop restaurant and was greeted by artistic administrators who had flown in from across the land expressly to meet the emerging legend. Chad Smith was one of them.

“He spent like five minutes at the dinner,” recalls Smith, today the L.A. Philharmonic’s chief operating officer, “and was like, ‘Naaah …’ He went to that hot dog place on La Brea.”

These days Dudamel prefers sushi and Nancy Silverton’s restaurants, but that night 14 years ago it wasn’t Pink’s celebrated chili dog he was after. He just wasn’t ready.

“I think you have to protect yourself,” Dudamel says today, sipping sparkling water at Bar Marmont as a Bill Evans Trio record plays in the background. Dressed in casual black with artfully weathered brown boots—a goth preparing for a strenuous hike—he adds: “You have to respect others, but you have to respect yourself.” He makes clear that he shook everyone’s hand that night at the Bowl and later caught up with Smith over a burger in West Hollywood.

In the year or so following his unexpected triumph in Bamberg, Germany—and the bombardment of offers and accolades that followed—Dudamel thought often of his mentor, the late Venezuelan conductor Jose Antonio Abreu, who had always urged: “reflection, thinking, time to breathe.” Abreu had routinely counseled that a mind is like a bottle of wine, and that half inch of air between the cork and the juice is what makes it all possible—you need space to let your soul exhale. Dudamel loves metaphors and uses them liberally when trying to get a musical idea across to the orchestra: Play your instrument like you are swimming naked; you are flipping through a book and see a picture you cannot touch. …

Despite his initial hesitation, Dudamel ended up, of course, accepting the music director position with the Phil after being pursued by orchestras from around the world; he just guided it through the recently concluded 100th season, which may have been the most ambitious and extravagant season by any orchestra on the planet. In September he will mark 10 years with the Phil, having hired nearly a third of its 106 musicians and, arguably, transformed its sound. As the most famous classical musician in America and the public face of an orchestra considered the world’s most daring, Dudamel inevitably informs the next century of the Phil—and fuels speculation about whether a man so ferociously restless will remain at its helm a second decade.

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To appreciate the Dudamel phenomenon, it’s necessary to consider the recent state of classical music in the English-speaking world. Simply put, L.A. was a ravaged—or at least dispirited— land craving a savior. A bit like diminished Democrats eternally pining for JFK, classical music folk have been yearning for a figure who could galvanize the general public the way Leonard Bernstein did in the mid-20th century. “Everybody’s looking to us as a symbol,” Dudamel says. (Dudamel uses “we” or “us” more often than “I,” wearing his humility and love of what he calls his family on his sleeve.)

By now the story of Dudamel’s arrival has nearly passed into myth. Some have compared it to the grooming of a Hollywood star; others see biblical parallels, with Abreu—founder of the Venezuelan-based music program El Sistema that’s rolling out across much of the world—as God and Dudamel as his earnest prophet and charming son. There are parallels to the arrival of Elvis, the British Invasion; Dudamel’s public appearances, especially overseas, are sometimes likened to Beatlemania, with the young conductor-as-rock-star mobbed by even younger admirers.

The reality is far more prosaic. The son of two musicians—a salsa trombonist and a voice teacher—Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez was born and raised in Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth-largest city and a place known for its universities and musical tradition. Despite the temptation to see his ascent as a rags-to-riches tale, Dudamel grew up middle class; as a boy in the ’80s, he was into soccer, movies, and violin. He began music lessons at age five, waking at 3 a.m. to journey 225 miles to Caracas—like driving to L.A. from Morro Bay—once a week with his grandmother. One detail of the Dudamel legend is the eight-year-old musician “conducting” Fisher-Price toys after seeing an especially moving performance. He learned a love of serendipity from a grandfather who took him on long, aimless drives.

gustavo dudamel leaving phil
Gustavo Dudamel in 2016

Mathew Imaging/WireImage/GettyImages

At age 11, as a violinist in a youth orchestra, Dudamel grabbed a baton when the adult conductor who led the group was a few minutes late—as Dudamel began waving it, the other kids started playing behind him: “It started as fun; a few minutes later it was serious.” Holding a baton for the first time, Dudamel has said, felt “like the most natural thing in the world.” That day he became the conductor’s assistant; a few years later he was summoned to Caracas to study with Abreu. Two years after that, at 18, Dudamel became music director of the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, El Sistema’s showcase band and a group he still leads, free of charge, out of his commitment to musical education.

It may now seem inevitable that the world’s most glamorous conductor ended up leading what may be the world’s most admired orchestra, that a young Latin American hero would settle in a Latino-majority city that likes to tell itself it will never grow old. But it could have just as easily not happened at all.

That star-making Mahler competition in Germany? Dudamel almost didn’t show. He’d just been in Berlin, apprenticing with the celebrated conductor Simon Rattle, and was worn out. “I was trying to find any excuse not to go,” he says, remembering unease about his unsteady English. “My maestro said, ‘It’s only two weeks—go.’ ”

His performance launched numerous calls from scouts and observers to rave about the young Venezuelan—most essentially, L.A. Phil’s then-conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, a serious musician not known for empty praise. But the Phil was just one of many suitors, and Dudamel took his time committing. “He thought I was a stalker,” jokes Deborah Borda, then the Phil’s president and CEO, who received Salonen’s call and has remained a Dudamel booster since decamping for the New York Philharmonic, “chasing him all over the world to get him to sign the contract.”

“It was difficult for me to see the city…It was very abstract: Do I like or not like the city?” —Gustavo Dudamel

Another thing that’s rarely mentioned, in part because Dudamel has become a symbol of Los Angeles and speaks about his love for the place and his enthusiasm for seeing shows at the Bowl, eating at In-N-Out Burger, and other regular-guy signifiers: He really didn’t much like it here or know what to make of the place the first few times he visited, even though L.A. superficially resembles the rambling, palm-tree-lined Caracas. “It was difficult for me to see the city,” he says, describing a vague, cryptic place he could not interpret. “It was very abstract: Do I like or not like the city?”

A few years later he was leading a free five-hour concert at the Hollywood Bowl complete with fireworks spelling out his name, thunderous ovations, and Spanish-language subtitles. A star was born.

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None of the rest of this would matter—the fireworks, presumably, would have spelled out someone else’s name—if not for Dudamel’s musicianship. Alongside the popular excitement about his arrival, there was some grumbling among critics suspicious of this barely known 20-something following Salonen, a first-rate conductor and composer who modernized and streamlined the Phil over 17 years. Age was part of the bias, though Europeans have a tradition of young composers: Gustav Mahler took conducting jobs in his 20s and led Vienna’s main opera company in his 30s; a century later, Rattle took over an important English orchestra at 25. The L.A. Phil, atypically for a U.S. orchestra, likes young talent: Salonen came in at a boyish 34; Zubin Mehta when he was 26.

Some credible critics have seen limits to Dudamel’s musicianship, and there’s been a dull murmur since his arrival that the Los Angeles Times is too smitten to give a realistic assessment. Anne Midgette of The Washington Post in 2010 described his conducting as “uneven, superficial, moment to moment”; The Wall Street Journal’s David Mermelstein lamented that after a decade Dudamel “hasn’t quite put his stamp on this orchestra in the way that Messrs. Mehta and Salonen did in their day.” Every artist has a personality, built on aversions and preferences, strengths, and weaknesses. The standard critical take on Dudamel is that he’s better on the warhorses—the familiar Mozart to Mahler fare—than with the modern and contemporary music that has become central to the Phil’s identity. These criticisms aside, Dudamel is widely respected by orchestral music insiders and beloved by the musicians he conducts. Some overseas players have been known to beg friends in L.A. to get a message through about their eagerness to work with him.

Yuja Wang, the young piano soloist who has toured with Dudamel and performed with him at the Bowl on July 25, likens him to the late Italian titan Claudio Abbado. “Both are so intuitive and sensitive with their gestures and expressions,” she says, “they don’t have to speak.” When Dudamel does, she adds, “he jokes in his funny English to put the musicians at ease.”

Pianist Herbie Hancock, who heads the Phil’s jazz wing, says it’s not always easy to perform with orchestras or classical conductors, but Dudamel gets it. “He just has this warm feeling—it’s just like playing with a jazz musician. He’s courageous, interested in trying new things—he’s not stilted. He can feel that jazz rhythm and interpret it for the orchestra.” A piece of music, Dudamel says, is like a work of philosophy that he must first interpret for himself and then translate to the musicians, who bring it to the audience. He makes the process sound nearly sacred.

People tend to talk about Dudamel’s “intuition” with music and musicians. Chad Smith is one of them: He credits Salonen, an avant-leaning Finn, with developing a “clear, crystalline sound” and Dudamel with making the orchestra “more flexible, richer,” finding new depths. Smith, who takes over as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival next year, points out that over the decade of Dudamel, the Phil has commissioned more new music than the orchestra did during its previous 90 years.

But when people compare Dudamel to other conductors, it’s generally to Leonard Bernstein, a childhood hero—he once conducted using “Lenny’s” old baton and accidentally broke it—and the last American classical figure to really capture a mass audience. (Jamie Bernstein, who thinks her father would have adored Dudamel, is one of many to have drawn the parallel.) “He doesn’t look like Bernstein when he conducts,” says Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s music critic, who allows that the warmth and emotion may be similar but Dudamel’s style is more precise, less emphatic.

But when people speak about the similarities between Dudamel and Bernstein, they’re not really talking about musicianship. They’re talking about fame.

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Within the world of orchestral music, and even in the jaded precincts of the press, Dudamel is sometimes characterized a bit like that line from The Manchurian Candidate: the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.

Dudamel is in fact not only massively talented but a genuinely likable guy. He clearly enjoys people and doesn’t waft desperation or neediness the way some celebrities do. Like Tom Cruise and other famous men, he’s shorter than you’d think, but no Napoleon temperamentally. When he took the stage at a party at the Hollywood Bowl on a cloudy May evening around sunset, after the audience had chatted through every previous speaker, the place went silent. Dudamel never raised his voice above a murmur and did not say anything particularly memorable, but the crowd was as quiet and attentive as if Young Elvis had risen to address them. Like many who have spent a lot of time outside their native tongue, he communicates with gestures and eye contact as much as with words but never seems to play to the gallery. He’s focused. He’s there. He’s listening.

Simon Woods, an understated Englishman who took over the Phil from Borda, calls this, “the indefinable charisma of star power—you can’t describe it; you can’t bottle it. But you know it when you see it.” The Phil, he says, was smart to follow Salonen—who had his own style of charisma but could never be described as exuberant—with someone entirely different.

To most Angelenos, Dudamel is a guy who stands onstage in front of 100 musicians and thousands of audience members, waving a baton and then taking bows an hour or two later. But he spends the vast majority of his time offstage working, too—planning the season, meeting the donors, urging some musicians on and others to retire. He guards his privacy, an “introverted extrovert,” as a colleague describes him. Dudamel and his first wife, journalist and dancer Eloísa Maturén, divorced in 2015 and have an eight-year-old son. Two years ago he married the Spanish actress María Valverde in a secret Las Vegas wedding.

Gustavo Dudamel with wife, María Valverde, and son, Martine, at the unveiling of the conductor’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in January.

Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

When Dudamel travels, which is often, he lugs not one but two suitcases full of books. He is unsurprisingly fond of Latin American writers—Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda. His favorite seems to be the philosophically minded Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, especially “The Aleph”—a short story about paradox and infinity. “The best time I have is when I read,” he says. “Engaging my imagination. I’m very simple—I’m happy with simple things.”

Has success changed The Dude? “What’s amazing is that Gustavo is exactly the same guy,” says Alberto Arvelo, a filmmaker who met Dudamel when both lived in Caracas; they now regard each other as long-lost brothers. “Becoming a celebrity is something that has not affected his soul. The rest of what happens—the comedy of celebrity—is not what he is looking for. He wants more and more and more—to explore the boundaries of music, classical music, contemporary music, folk music, other art forms.”

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Sometime around 2002 Dudamel’s mentor, Abreu, took his protégé to a charmless, empty parking garage in Caracas. Can you hear the acoustics? he asked. Can you see the walls, the seats, the musicians on the stage? Dudamel smiles recalling it. The concert hall Abreu envisioned ended up being built on the site of the garage; it’s since hosted thousands of Venezuelan kids and their instruments and audiences.

“Maestro Abreu had an incredible idea,” Dudamel says. “We are spreading the idea around the world. It’s about identity, about access to beauty, about using harmony to create. To be poor is to be no one. But culture is an identity. And culture is universal.”

Music education, El Sistema, maestro Abreu, and YOLA (formerly Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, inspired by Abreu’s program) are the things Dudamel is most likely to talk about, and talk about most earnestly, when the questions stop. “He is present every day,” Dudamel says, gazing heavenward as he mentions the late maestro as his most important influence. (Abreu died last year at 78 after a long illness.)

Dudamel is not El Sistema’s only admirer. It’s been hailed as both a way to create an audience for an aging art form as well as to help break kids out of cycles of poverty. YOLA currently has four sites here, with more than 1,200 students. In fall 2020, its reach will expand significantly when a new concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota—the team behind Walt Disney Concert Hall—opens in Inglewood. (In May Dudamel conducted a free neighborhood concert with YOLA and Phil musicians at a church near Lafayette Park in Westlake.)

But not everyone who’s looked at Abreu and El Sistema has been persuaded. To skeptics, the maestro was a skilled but cynical petrol-state power broker—the kind you might find in Saudi Arabia—who is good at charming politicians. Despite the fact that classical music includes many eras and styles, Abreu’s repertoire centered on overplayed, overhyped showpieces—a mainstream monoculture that has nearly wiped out everything else around it.

For all the claims made for the power of the program to lead a youth revolution, “we now see that El Sistema has been grinding people into dust,” says Robert Fink, a UCLA musicologist who heads the university’s music industry program. Fink calls it “a fantasy version of what people in the West believe about classical music. It’s a worldview where classical music is an unqualified social good, is inclusive, solves social problems, and keeps the canon intact.”

The most damning assessment comes from the book El Sistema: Orchestrating Venezuela’s Youth, which includes a chapter on Dudamel. Geoffrey Baker, a music professor at the University of London, visited Caracas out of his enthusiasm for music education only to find a cult of personality of nearly North Korean proportions. Baker’s book argues that Abreu, whose training was primarily in economics, just wanted money and power and sold the idea of art-as-uplift to persuade politicians to give them to him. Baker also wonders why nonwhite people in former European colonies have to play orchestral music. Why not jazz, which values individualism and spontaneity? Why not music native to their own region? The fact that El Sistema unfolded during the reign of Hugo Chavez—who came to office a populist and died more resembling a dictator presiding over a broken nation—makes things even stickier. (Dudamel conducted at Chavez’s funeral.)

As Venezuela has subsequently collapsed, economically and otherwise, Dudamel’s silence about the government that supported the program drew substantial criticism. Dudamel eventually denounced Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, and now finds himself effectively barred from his native land, the country where his family lives and where he still, on paper, leads an orchestra. “I urgently call on the President of the Republic and the national government to rectify and listen to the voice of the Venezuelan people,” Dudamel posted on social media after anti-Maduro demonstrations and crackdowns two years ago. Maduro responded by canceling a tour the conductor had scheduled with Venezuela’s National Youth Orchestra. Dudamel has been both emphatic and careful. “I’m with you!” he told the Venezuelan people in January while getting a star on Hollywood Boulevard; he later said he wasn’t taking sides.

Dudamel is clearly pained by the situation back home and has heard the criticisms before. It’s the one subject where his enthusiasm takes on a defensive, slightly emphatic edge. Politics, he says, is “very complex—you see what’s happening onstage, but what really happens, happens backstage.”

He gives a long defense of Abreu and El Sistema when pushed. “Since 1975 El Sistema has been a program of the Venezuelan state,” he emphasizes, “not the government. Governments change—states don’t.” The program and the youth orchestra have survived eight regimes. Dudamel gets flustered as he talks about the beauty of the country, the pain of its devolution, but his message is clear: Hundreds of thousands of kids—including once upon a time, one named Gustavo Dudamel—have learned and grown because of El Sistema.

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Two or three decades ago, there were few phrases more discouraging than the announcement that a classical program would include a piece of new or “contemporary” music—buzzkill for both progressives and old-timers who want the same Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces over and over. But in the intervening years, academic avant-gardism was flushed out of the system; West Coast minimalism opened up ways to approach traditional tonal music; young, post-Bjork composers from Scandinavia and earnest mystics from Eastern Europe showed up along with the emergence of such composers as John Adams, Nico Muhly, and young Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw.

Orchestras used to have to choose whether they wanted to be “progressive”—new pieces, edgy composers—or populist, offering flashy fare for a broad audience and summer seasons involving Kenny Rogers or George Benson. The combination of Dudamel—who has preserved the edginess of the Salonen years and aimed to democratize simultaneously—and Woods—who seeks to extend Borda’s triumphs—means that the L.A. Phil can do both at once: It doesn’t have to decide which one is more important. That the Phil has more money than any U.S. orchestra certainly helps. You can have a Thomas Ades commission and lessons for kids in the hood. But Dudamel’s star power also means that the Phil can do just about anything, and audiences, donors, and the press will take it seriously.

There remains concern—some of it justified—about the “graying of the audience” for classical music in the U.S. and U.K., but the Phil has seen the median age of its attendees fall from 61 to 56 during the Dudamel years. So the second century of the Phil and the second decade of Dudamel’s term are beginning in a sunnier state than most American arts groups find themselves. Still, he and the Phil have a sense of unfinished business.

Three of L.A.’s major classical music organizations are now helmed by men with Spanish surnames. Besides Dudamel, Placido Domingo stands as the longtime general director of the L.A. Opera, and Jaime Martin recently made his debut as the L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s music director. Despite earnest efforts to diversify audiences, Latinos are still underrepresented at concert halls. But under Dudamel the Phil’s proportion has nearly doubled. (Woods calls continuing this trend one of his top priorities as Phil CEO.)

As for Dudamel’s artistry, even some of his admirers think he needs to step back a bit to grow as a musician and thinker. “I’ve seen his schedule,” Rattle said a few years ago, “and I do not see how he has time to breathe.”

Dudamel’s public appearances, especially overseas, are sometimes likened to Beatlemania, with the young conductor-as-rock-star mobbed by even younger admirers.

But the most pressing question about Dudamel is how long he’ll stay. It may be difficult for the Phil to keep him past the end of his contract, which ends with the 2021-22 season. He was hard to land and could likely prove harder to hold.

Some speculate he will not rest until he arrives at the taproot of the tradition. For a young Mozart- and Mahler-loving man from the edge of the classical music world, the center is not California. It’s the German-speaking heart of Old Europe. Dudamel clearly adores much about Los Angeles and digs living in the Hollywood Hills, but he may still feel out of place here. Despite massive emigration out of Venezuela since Chavez’s election, the Latin American population in L.A. is mostly Mexican and Salvadoran. And being close to Caracas is no longer much help when you are an enemy of the state.

In addition to the question of whether the Phil can keep Dudamel, there is the issue of whether it should—for the sake of the orchestra, the conductor, and the audience. There’s a notion in the arts that holding the same leadership post for more than 10 years is dangerous, for both the boss and the organization, leading to complacency or defensiveness. The days of three- and four-decade grand-old-man tenures seem to be over.

“The players themselves are the arbiters as much as anyone else,” says Thor Steingraber, a veteran of L.A. performing arts life who runs the Soraya center in Northridge. “They’ve been in the middle of a great love affair; that’s what makes for a great orchestra. How long does that last? Nobody knows.” Still, Steingraber, says, even if he splits in 2022, “Dudamel will probably be woven into the fabric of Los Angeles for the rest of his life: This was his first big gig, and he rolled out El Sistema here.”

The Phil’s philosophy of permanent revolution also syncs up with Dudamel’s own sensibility. The Phil—and the city itself—is about what Dudamel calls “a vision of the new,” a commitment to risk-taking and boundary breaking and genre blending.

For Dudamel the possibilities continue to seem endless. The ideal tenure for a conductor, he says, is not about a magic number but a healthy relationship. “If the relation is good—if you have the space to breathe, to build things, to create things—I don’t see an end.”